The ongoing economic toll of the pandemic has led to a surge in requests for food stamps and other programs in the past year.
Hundreds of thousands of workers remain unemployed in Massachusetts amid a sluggish economy and government restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, and that has record numbers of families struggling to pay bills and put food on the table.
At least 888,564 individuals in the state received food assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in October, according to the latest data from the state Department of Transitional Assistance.
That's an increase of about 7,000 people from the previous month and nearly 125,000 more than the number of people getting food stamps in October 2019.
Food bank operators say demand has skyrocketed amid the economic turmoil created by the pandemic, and it shows no sign of subsiding.
"We've seen a tremendous increase in the number of people being helped by our pantries," said Amy Pessia, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, which also delivers food directly to needy families. "And we anticipate the need for supplemental food to continue as people recover from the pandemic."
Pessia said food pantries are often a source of supplemental nutrition for people who get food stamps and other benefits.
Sam Prescott, food assistant supervisor at Beverly Bootstraps, said she's seen a similar surge on the North Shore.
"We've definitely seen families who have never had to use our services before coming to us," Prescott said. "The biggest shift we've seen is seniors and having to do more deliveries for them for the fear of not being able to get out, not being able to do an online order."
Massachusetts is one of the states hardest hit by the pandemic, with 533,024 COVID-19 infections as of Wednesday and 15,312 deaths. State leaders have responded to demand for food assistance by making it easier for people to access benefits and pumping more money into food programs.
Going one step further, last month President Joe Biden signed an executive order increasing federal food assistance for about 12 million people who use SNAP and other programs aimed at families with school-age children.
Food stamp recipients will see monthly benefits increase by 15% beginning this month through the end of June. Biden's order also included a 15% increase to the pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program for families of needy students who normally get meals at school.
Expansions like that can actually help pantries, Prescott said.
"Any increase is really helpful. We've definitely had families who didn't come for a little while when the pandemic EBTs kicked in, and when they came back, they said, 'yeah, I got this increase and felt I didn't need to come (to the pantry) anymore,'" Prescott said. "That's huge for pantries, to have that kind of weight taken off of us, to have an increase from the government."
For Robyn Burns, executive director of Salem Pantry, SNAP helps families because it "gives them purchasing power."
"We see more autonomy," Burns said. "What we're seeing is maybe a little bit of a dip in how frequently people are coming."
Gov. Charlie Baker's administration has diverted tens of millions of dollars in pandemic relief over the past year to prop up overburdened regional food banks. The state also has been delivering emergency meals directly to families.
Those getting SNAP benefits must fall within certain income guidelines. If qualified, a family of four can get a up to $646 a month, though the average family only gets about $208.
While most looking to the future after COVID-19 are looking for normalcy this year, it could be years before the need for food pantries and increased SNAP benefits goes away. Reviews of pantry usage after the 2008 financial crisis showed it was "around seven years before things got back on track with pre-2008 numbers, " Burns said.
"We're just assuming, as the vaccine comes, as numbers dip and other services come about, it's going to have an impact," Burns said. "But we're in it for the long haul."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com. Contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com.